I have met my hero. Funny, I didn’t know I had a hero until I went to swim with dwarf minke whales on the Ribbon Reefs in Australia. There he is, on a boat, in the middle of the ocean.

Doctor Alastair Birtles – my unknown hero. On board to share his knowledge and continue his research, Dr Birtles is part of the Dwarf Minke Whale Project research team. I am immediately struck by his gentle presence.

Dr Birtles is a leading light in sustainable tourism and conservation – whale sharks, sharks, whales, dolphins, turtles, and dugongs have all come under his protection. With his considered approach, he has broadened my understanding of conservation and the importance of protecting our reefs and their inhabitants. The minkes are incredibly lucky to have Dr Birtles in their corner of the ocean.

dr. alistair Birtles minke whales
Photo courtesy of Tanya Dredge – Empty Nest Diver

I am on board Mike Balls’ flagship, the Spoilsport, hopeful to spend the next few days swimming with dwarf minke whales.  Within hours the minkes appear and approach the boat. Quietly we slip into the water, holding lines as the inquisitive whales approach us.  There are no words, pure emotion wells in my chest as I make eye contact with a minke less than a few metres away. Time disappears as we spend hours in the water. These curious baleens appear to be as enthralled with us as we are them.   

Now in his seventy’s and retired, Dr Birtles continues to research the dwarf minke whales. His humble manner reflects the respect and love he has for these unique animals, his dedication undeniable. Dr Birtles’ days are spent on the sun deck looking out for minkes or in the water with the whales. He outlasts us all. His evenings are spent educating us.  After more than twenty years studying the dwarf minke whale he still considers his interactions a privilege.

Listening to Alastair talk, I am struck by kinship. He knows many of the whales intimately, regaling us with a story of a whale he met years ago named Trumpet. Crossing paths again he chuckles as he remembers her provocative tummy roles, earning her the nickname Strumpet.

During our encounters he completes detailed drawings and notes in the sea. That alone is an incredible accomplishment. Everything is moving – the boat, the line, the water, us, 8 tonne whales. Did I mention he is in his seventies!?

searching for minke whales in australia
Photo courtesy of Tanya Dredge – Empty Nest Diver

Alastair does not believe the whales recognize him. I am not so sure; they are obviously curious intelligent creatures. If he can identify them, I think they can identify him. Personally, I believe Strumpet was showing her pleasure at seeing him again.

Under Alastair’s guidance I begin to recognize markings on different whales. It is a complicated process, each dorsal fin like an individual fingerprint.  I can only manage a partial id.

Alastair’s’ approach is measured and genuine, his knowledge undeniable, his stories humorous. Through him, I have learnt a lot, broadened my outlook.  His approach to conservation has inspired me. The research is important – the animal more important. He is a respectful man, with an enormous reverence for all that this wonderful planet has to offer.

He has made me want to be better. A better conservationist, a better person. All in four days.

The whale encounters exceeded all expectations, my encounter with Alastair Birtles equally profound.

Doctor Alastair Birtles – a quiet hero – my hero.

For more information on the Dwarf Minke Whale Project here.

dwarf minke whale in australia
Photo courtesy of Tanya Dredge – Empty Nest Diver

Author Biography – Tanya Dredge – Empty Nest Diver

This article was written by guest blogger Tanya Dredge, a travel writer and blogger who runs the website Empty Nest Diver.

I am part of a growing number of women around the world starting their scuba diving adventures later in life. Scuba for me has brought a healthier lifestyle, travel, adventure, knowledge, and a big learning curve. Inspired I am learning about myself, dive gear, dive destinations, buoyancy, breath control and our beautiful oceans.

I am discovering life through the lens of a dive mask as I immerse myself into my new scuba lifestyle. Currently located in Yeppoon with the magnificent Southern Great Barrier Reef on my doorstep.

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